Friday, December 28, 2012

Drop A Quarter (or Two) Into A Very "Unorthodox Jukebox"

We know exactly what’s on Bruno Mars' mind as we listen to his second album, Unorthodox Jukebox (2012); it’s the same thing that was on Marvin Gayes' mind when he recorded Let’s Get It On (1973): the dual nature of love & sex. It’s not only the sweet, spiritual side of love he's after; it’s the physical, lustier side. The first couple of tracks leave little doubt:  a crooning paean to “Young Girls” who are always tempting him & then, on the driving, Police-like “Locked Out of Heaven,” he says: "your sex takes me to paradise.” Later, on the down & dirty “Gorilla,” Bruno wails about making love with his lady just like the title creature. The record is a bit of a change in direction for Mars. His excellent debut album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans (2010) was filled with catchy tunes like “Grenade” and “Just The Way You Are,” that celebrated the more innocent side of love & longing. This time he’s out to show us his funkier, down & dirty self.

Mars is a talented vocalist, writer-producer and artist who creates sounds that most pop artists would kill for; his talent for hook laden tunes and clever lyrics are still in evidence; especially on songs like the Michael Jackson style “Moonshine” and the Prince-ish funk of “Treasure.” There are hints of rock, reggae, hip-hop & retro soul throughout the album. On tracks like “Natalie” and “Money Make Her Smile,” he talks about gold-diggers who manage to steal his heart, and maybe even a bit of his cash. Not everything is on the darker side, however: “When I Was Your Man” and “If I Knew” are beautiful ballads that are set firmly in Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder territory. There’s an admirable variety to the musical styles here, as he sings about women, love, sex & money, and how they're all intertwined.

He's out to explore some wide-ranging, adventurous musical territory here, and he largely succeeds. This is a fun record and has excellent beats with R&B swagger & style to spare, though the focus on the carnal may put off some listeners. It’s worth repeated spins, and it manages to chart his growth as a performer. The producers include Mark Ronson (who worked with Amy Winehouse), Jeff Bhasker (who produced Fun’s “We Are Young”) and The Smeezingtons, a collective that includes the artist himself. The album is now available in stores and for online download. The Target edition of the album includes several bonus tracks, including an offbeat collaboration with Esperanza Spalding called “Old & Crazy,” that shows off Mars' lighter side. The 27-year old singer is definitely a talent to watch.

Here's a link to the video for "Locked Out Of Heaven" and the audio for "When I Was Your Man"

A Brief Note: John V's Eclectic Avenue will be back in 2013 with more reviews, reflections and observations; Thanks again for reading and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Have A Little Faith in Paloma's Impassioned "Fall To Grace"

I recently tuned in to Late Night with David Letterman to see his interview with Led Zeppelin. The classic rockers (as well as Dave himself) had just been celebrated at The Kennedy Center Honors. The group stopped by to discuss their experiences receiving the award. It was a great segment, but as I often do when I watch the show, I stuck around to check out the evening's musical guest. On this episode, it was British performer Paloma Faith, who sang “Picking Up The Pieces,” from her sophomore release Fall To Grace (2012). I enjoyed the song, and decided to check out the whole album. I wasn’t disappointed.

Ms. Faith is an old school songstress with a powerful voice & a great stage presence. Her sound is a mix of soul, pop & jazz. I hear echoes of Amy Winehouse & Aretha, with a dash of Lady Gaga & even a hint of 80s dance queen Taylor Dayne; Yes folks, I said Taylor Dayne. From the almost Jim Steinman-esque “Picking Up The Pieces” to the soul-laced anthem “Black & Blue,” this is an artist who’s not afraid to flaunt her flair for the theatrical and go over the top with her performances. She can move easily between the softer, more understated numbers like “Just Be,” to the dance floor workout “Freedom,” or the synth-driven “30 Minute Love Affair.” You might find that the the chamelon-like nature of the music suggests that Ms. Faith had a really cool dinner party with Madonna, Adele & Annie Lennox, and you wouldn't be far wrong.

Faith’s powerful vocals bring these songs alive with a depth of feeling that’s often missing from this type of pop record. These are tales of bruised and battered lovers, such as the moving “When You’re Gone” and the Winehouse-style “Let Me Down Easy.” The lyrics are passionate & raw, recalling broken hearts & souls, but giving the listener a sense of redemption, strength & rebirth. The artist worked with talented collaborators like Dan Wilson (co-writer of Adele’s Someone Like You) & film scorer David Arnold (veteran of several Bond films, Independence Day) so she could be sure the soundscapes of these well-produced songs had some color & emotion as well.

There are a group of talented neo-soul singers that originated from the UK making a splash these days (including Joss Stone, Duffy, the aforementioned Adele & the late Ms. Winehouse, to name a few) but Paloma Faith can hold her own. She counts classic soul singers like Etta James & Billie Holiday among her influences, and every track on the album exudes her love for this type of music. Ms. Faith succeeds in a variety of styles on this enjoyable record. It’s no surprise that the US edition of the album includes a passionate cover of the INXS classic “Never Tear Us Apart.” Some deluxe editions of the album also include acoustic versions of several tracks. Fall To Grace is now available in stores and for digital download from various sources.

Here are links to "Picking Up The Pieces", the acoustic version of "Black & Blue", and her cover of "Never Tear Us Apart"

Next: Bruno Mars Returns With An "Unorthodox Jukebox"

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Theron & Oswalt Shine in the Darkly Comic "Young Adult"

In director Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (2011), Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is the ghostwriter of a popular series of YA novels. She’s recently divorced, and feels unfulfilled romantically and personally. Her book series is coming to an end after a long & successful run. She receives an invitation from Buddy Slade, an old high school flame, to his new baby’s shower. Mavis decides to head to her hometown and win him back. Despite the fact that he’s married and has a child, she convinces herself that everything that was wrong with her life happened after her relationship with Buddy (Patrick Wilson) ended.  After all, she was the queen of her high school; what could have gone so terribly wrong with her life?

When Mavis arrives, she reconnects with Matt Frehauf (Patton Oswalt), a classmate who was the victim of a horrific attack during their high school years. He’s been dealing with his own demons in the years since they graduated. The two lost souls befriend each other, and Matt tries to be a sort of conscience & sounding board for Mavis, but with little success. The two actors have excellent chemistry, and their scenes together are some of the best in the film. As Mavis’s plan to steal Buddy away from his wife & baby moves forward, she continues to delude herself that it will actually work, and that he feels the same way. In fact, she becomes almost childishly deluded about Buddy returning her feelings for him.

The film reunites director Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, the team behind Juno. This movie has some of the tart humor and sharp dialogue of that 2007 hit. But Juno’s darker tones were lightened with a little bit of heart; there’s a lot less of that here. The main problem is Theron’s character; she's unlikable, that you can’t relate to her. Her former beau is a nice guy, with a loving wife and a new baby. Who’s going to cheer for her to break that marriage up? As Mavis encounters other people from her past (who have a very different view of her than how she perceives herself) her self-delusion only seems to strengthen, along with her resolve to steal Buddy away from his family.

By the time we see some shadings to Mavis, it’s almost too late, though Theron hits it out of the park in a bravura scene toward the end of the film. It's so raw it becomes almost uncomfortable to watch. There’s also a telling scene between Mavis & her parents, and an odd encounter between Mavis & Matt’s sister Sandra that attempts to point toward some redemption for her. However, it ultimately seems to end up reinforcing our feelings about the character. And (without being too spoiler-y) there’s definitely a scene I wanted to see between Oswalt & Theron’s characters that just isn’t there. Cody’s script has some great lines & good moments, but I can’t help feeling that some of the bigger questions remain unresolved. There are some definite flaws amidst the good points in the story.

Reitman has worked wonders with tough material before, in Thank You For Smoking (2005) and Up in The Air (2009), and his direction is pretty solid here, but this movie just seems stuck in a very dark place. There’s some great acting here, especially from Theron & Oswalt, as two damaged people who can’t seem to escape their self-made prisons. I almost wished the movie had focused solely on their relationship. I’m not saying everything has to be wrapped up in a neat little bow, or that every ending has to be happy. I can enjoy a story with darker themes and no easy answers, but Young Adult left me feeling a bit unfulfilled. Judge for yourself; the movie is worth a look for some excellent performances and interesting writing, but it's not quite the comedy it's trailers & advertising indicated. The film is available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download.

Here's a link to the film's trailer: A special shout out to the movie for prominently using one of my favorite power pop tunes, "The Concept" by Teenage Fanclub, and there are some other great music choices in the film. An additional trivia note; screenwriter Cody is a huge fan of the well-remembered YA series Sweet Valley High and is trying to get a film version of the those books off the ground; that's likely the reason for Theron's occupation in the film.